EXCLUSIVE: SAG-AFTRA National Executive Director David White recently misled the union’s board of directors about the union’s attempt to whitewash An Open Secret, director Amy Berg’s explosive new documentary about the sexual abuse of child actors in Hollywood. He also misled the board about the union’s threat to sue her and the film’s producers.
Last Friday, Deadline revealed that the union had threatened to sue Berg unless she removed “all references” to the union from her film. Prior to publication, the guild issued this statement: “We have not yet threatened to sue this producer. Nor did we attempt to suppress any factual or accurate information in this production.” While White was denying our story, the film’s director confirmed our report.
Berg told Deadline: “I felt that SAG-AFTRA used legal threats to try to sanitize the film.” Her position is supported by a letter that was sent to her by the union’s litigation counsel and copied to White and two other top union officials (read it here).
White included those false assertions in an email he sent to the union’s board of directors Friday. “As you may already know,” he told the board members, “an inaccurate story about SAG-AFTRA posted online at Deadline today. …Regarding the Deadline piece, we were contacted with information about this shortly before publication and sent a strongly worded statement requesting the blog address several inaccuracies. We sent our correcting statement to alert the reporter and the publication that their story was rife with errors and outright falsehoods, and to push them toward more factual reporting. Deadline refused to correct its story. … As is reflected in the statement, one of this union’s top priorities is the protection of all its members – especially its youngest members. Anyone who suggests otherwise is not dealing with facts.”
The union’s “correcting statement,” given to Deadline by SAG-AFTRA spokesperson Pamela Greenwalt on June 4, said that, “While we reserve our rights to pursue litigation if this union is portrayed inaccurately, we have not yet threatened to sue this producer. Nor did we attempt to suppress any factual or accurate information in this production. Rather, we requested that those errors (in the film), of which we became aware, were corrected, and that no reference to SAG-AFTRA be made that inaccurately ties this union to any alleged misconduct. Notably, the producers’ attorneys’ agreed to our request.”
In fact, the union did threaten to sue Berg; it did attempt to suppress factual and accurate information contained in her film, and it did not “request” that she make major changes to her film – it “demanded” that she do so.
As seen in their correspondence with Berg and the film’s attorney, one of the guild leaders’ main demands was that SAG-AFTRA should not be linked in any way in the film to Michael Harrah, whom Berg had interviewed at the union’s headquarters in Hollywood on March 26, 2014. Harrah, a manager of child actors, had co-founded the union’s Young Performers Committee, had once chaired the committee and was a member of the committee on the day he was interviewed. He resigned a few days later.
Harrah, the film reveals, had questionable relationships with some of the child actors he once represented; some of them even lived with him at his home. The film also included a taped telephone conversation in which Harrah acknowledged that he’d made “unwanted” advances toward a former child actor he represented.
“I didn’t like when you tried to have me sleep in your bed and touch me and everything,” the former child actor told Harrah on the phone. “I hated that.”
“Yeah, and that was something unwanted I shouldn’t have done,” Harrah replied, unaware that he was being taped. “And there’s no way you can undo that. But it certainly is something I shouldn’t have done.”
White and the union’s leaders demanded that Berg remove “all references” in her film to the union and to edit out anything that would connect Harrah to the union. “This firm is litigation counsel to SAG-AFTRA,” attorney Douglas Mirell said in a letter to Berg and the film’s producers. “Demand is hereby made,” the letter states, “that no … references to SAG, to SAG-AFTRA, or to any SAG-AFTRA committees be included in any portions of this documentary.”
That letter was copied to White; to Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the union’s COO and general counsel, and to Greenwalt, the guild’s chief communications and marketing officer, all of whom were aware of its contents. Not surprisingly, White did not include that letter in his email to the board of directors.
Berg told Deadline that the union indeed had threatened to sue her in an attempt to sanitize the film. “They sent letters from a lawyer demanding that we strip the film of any mention of SAG-AFTRA, even though an important figure in the film, Michael Harrah, served on the organization’s Young Performers Committee for decades. The fact that he apparently resigned from the committee after I interviewed him doesn’t change the fact that he was a founding member and chair of the committee for decades.”
The union’s demand letter also accused Berg of attempting to use the union to drum up publicity for her movie. “It has likewise come to the attention of SAG-AFTRA that Ms. Berg has repeatedly and deliberately attempted to draw SAG-AFTRA into her publicity and promotional efforts for An Open Secret by telling multiple reporters that they should contact SAG-AFTRA to find out ‘what we were doing about’ the issue of alleged child sexual abuse and exploitation in Hollywood.”
Complaining that Berg “reportedly repeated the mis-identification of Mr. Harrah as ‘a member of the SAG Young Performers Committee’” when discussing the film with reporters, the letter demanded that “all such false and misleading statements made in connection with any and all efforts to market, promote, advertise or otherwise publicize An Open Secret – including all references to SAG SAG-AFTRA and/or any of its committees – must immediately cease.”
In his email to the SAG-AFTRA board of directors, White made no mention of the fact that the union’s leaders — who represent thousands of broadcast journalists — had demanded that Berg not make any references to reporters about their own union when being interviewed by them about her film.
The film company’s attorney, Alonzo Wickers IV, told the union’s litigation counsel via email (read it here) that “there is no legal requirement or editorial justification for stripping the documentary of any references to SAG, SAG-AFTRA, or the Young Performers Committee.” Clearly, he understood that White and the other guild leaders were demanding that Berg delete all references to SAG-AFTRA and its Young Performers Committee from her film, whether those references were accurate or not. That letter wasn’t included in White’s email to the board members either.
Had Berg bowed to the union leaders’ demands – which she refused to do – An Open Secret would have been a much shorter film. She would have had to delete all references to SAG and to SAG-AFTRA; she would have had to cut all references to the union’s Young Performers Committee and all references to Harrah’s connection to that committee; and she would have had to edit out a large portion of Berg’s interview with the co-founder of BizParentz, the organization that has done more than any other to raise awareness of child abuse in Hollywood. If she had acceded to their demand, Berg would have even had to cut a scene showing the front of the union’s building and the large “SAG-AFTRA One Union” logo emblazoned on it.
And yet, White and the guild’s leaders insist that they did not “attempt to suppress any factual or accurate information in this production.”
Guild leaders also demanded that the chryon in the film identifying Harrah as a member of the Young Performers Committee – which he had been when Berg interviewed him – be edited out of the film.
Wickers told the guild’s litigation counsel that Berg’s Disarming Films “is willing to edit the chryon that, in its current form, identifies Michael Harrah as a member of SAG-AFTRA’s Young Performers Committee.” He noted, however, that “there is no legal requirement or editorial justification for stripping the documentary of any references to SAG, SAG-AFTRA, or the Young Performers Committee.”
In a pre-publication statement to Deadline, Mirell said: “As the producers’ attorneys conceded to me, there is no connection between SAG or SAG-AFTRA and any alleged misconduct. In fact, we received a commitment from the producers’ attorneys to edit out the inaccurate information of which we were then aware, and to make any additional edits to the documentary to prevent any possible claim of a connection between SAG or SAG-AFTRA and any alleged misconduct.”
He then did what White told the board of directors the union has not done: threaten to sue Berg and the producers of her film. “If it turns out that the producers did not live up to this commitment,” Mirell wrote, “our firm has been authorized to pursue all appropriate legal remedies.”